There are great films and then there are Bollywood films. The Indian movie industry is a titan in cinema that’s long and often been overlooked by Western audiences. Which is a serious mistake. In what other genre can you find love triangles, family drama, class clashes, a hunky hero and stunning heroine, and sweeping musical numbers with epic dance sequences all within one film? (Not to mention insanely gorgeous outfits and locations).
The answer is nowhere else because only a Bollywood film can provide you with that take-your-breath-away whirlwind experience. And even though many OG Bollywood movies didn’t show kissing of any kind, they were still low-key sexy. Before there was Anthony Bridgerton whispering about lilies, there was Rahul, played by Shah Rukh Khan aka Bollywood’s Leonardo DiCaprio, standing mere inches away from Kajol’s lips, intimately whispering: “There are many bonds more than friendship. Bonds that we don’t understand, bonds that we don’t need to understand,” while sensually slipping bangles onto her wrists. And it really doesn’t get hotter than that.
Maybe you’ve always had an interest in Bollywood films, or maybe your curiosity is piqued after seeing that stunning Haldi scene in season 2 of Bridgerton against the backdrop of a gorgeous instrumental cover (spoiler: the song is from Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, an iconic film that is definitely on this list). But regardless, we’re glad you’re here. We’ve rounded up 11 Bollywood movies to help newbies get into and well acquainted with the genre.
Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998)
Kuch Kuch Hota Hai is a beloved classic for many young second gen South Asian Americans and often their first taste of the genre. The movie follows college BFFs Anjali (Kajol) and Rahul (Shah Rukh Khan), who bond over their love of basketball (and arguing over who’s the better player) and distaste for school. When new girl Tina (Rani Mukerji) shows up at school, Rahul instantly falls in love with her, and Anjali — besotted with Rahul — decides to leave the school. Years pass and the pair reconnect, but you’ll have to watch the film for all the juicy details. This movie features a ton of funky (and sometimes cringe-inducing) '90s fashion.
Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995)
If you’re sensing a trend, then you’d be entirely on to something. In the world of Bollywood, especially in the '90s and early 2000s, any combo of Kajol and Shah Rukh Khan as love interests was bound to be a raging success. Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge is no exception. The film is about two students who meet on a train in Europe and hate each other initially. After traveling across the continent together, Raj (Khan) tries to win over Simran’s (Kajol) parents in order to marry her. The problem? Her father’s already decided she’ll marry the son of his friend. DDLJ is one of the most successful movies in Bollywood history and is the longest-running film in the history of Indian cinema. Seriously, 25 years after its release, it’s still being shown in a theatre in Mumbai. If you’re going to watch one Bollywood movie, make it this one.
Monsoon Wedding (2001)
This comedy may not seem like your typical Bollywood movie for the time, but that’s exactly why you should watch it. Monsoon Wedding is about the chaos leading up to a modern Indian wedding, as families from all over the world come together to celebrate the arranged marriage of Aditi (Vasundhara Das). The movie deals with a lot, including topics of sexual assault and grooming within a family. This was groundbreaking for the time as sexual violence has historically been seen as taboo within Indian culture as well as in media. It’s a heavy watch, but definitely worth it.
One of the more recent titles on this list, Queen is another Bollywood film that broke the mold, by focusing on a young woman’s journey of self discovery without a romantic love interest. The movie follows heroine Rani (Kangana Ranaut), who goes on her honeymoon to Paris and Amsterdam alone after her fiancé leaves her at the altar. If you’re looking for a hilarious, girl power-focused watch, this is the one for you.
Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001)
Another hit from director Karan Johar, K3G is about the über wealthy Raichand family: billionaire businessman Yashvardhan "Yash" Raichand who lives in a massive Delhi home with his wife, two sons, and his mother. Adopted son Rahul (Shah Rukh Khan) falls in love with Anjali (Kajol), who’s from a lower class family, and of course his family doesn’t approve. Drama ensues, and so does a multi-year, cross-world tale of loving your family. “Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham,” the titular song from the film, was used in Bridgerton season 2, and everyone should also check out the seriously stunning video for “Suraj Hua Maddham.” The movie also stars Bollywood legends Amitabh Bachchan and Jaya Bachchan (who are married IRL!).
Okay, be prepared to have your heart broken and do the Kim Kardashian “ugly crying face.” Devdas, starring Shah Rukh Khan and Aishwarya Rai, is an epic that tracks the story of two childhood friends, Devdas Mukherjee (Khan) and Parvati "Paro" (Rai). After graduating from law school in London and returning to marry Parvati, Devdas’s family rejects the marriage and he turns to alcohol. This is a tragic romance in pretty much every sense of the word and features an incredible musical number with Rai and co-star Madhuri Dixit spotlighting classical music and dance.
Set in 1893 during the Victorian period, Lagaan is about a small village who is challenged to a cricket match by the British. If the villagers win, the British will cancel their taxes for three years (if the British win, the villagers will have to pay triple their tax at the end of the year). There’s only one problem: the villagers have to learn how to play the game. The movie is a must-watch for the very fact that it covers a period of time not often seen in films, and — albeit in a roundabout way — addresses the inequality of colonial rule in India.
Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999)
This late ‘90s film, starring Salman Khan, Aishwarya Rai, and Ajay Devgn is a twist on the classical love triangle. After Sameer (Khan) comes to study classical music under Nandini’s (Rai) father, the pair fall in love. Sameer is sent away when Nandini’s father discovers their affections, having already betrothed her to Vanraj (Devgn). After a miscommunication featuring missed letters, Nandini ends up marrying Vanraj, only to leave him to try and find Sameer. But, that’s far from where the story ends.
Another classic Khan film, this 2000 hit is about a mysterious music teacher who comes to a prestigious college with an über strict headmaster. As can be expected, he breaks the rules and encourages the students to follow their passions. This movie sees Khan on screen with Amitabh Bachchan (who would later play his father in K3G), as well as rocking some super chic sweaters and glasses.
While many of the movies on this list are more contemporary, we’d be remiss if we didn’t include at least one from the classic Hindi canon (because those films are really what started it all). That has to be Pyaasa. In the film, Vijay (Guru Dutt), a poet who’s not taken seriously by his family, encounters a case of mistaken identity when a man he’d previously given his coat to is killed in a train accident. Vijay’s brothers, as well as an acquaintance — believing Vijay's dead — steal his poems and have them published to reap the benefits. Meanwhile, Vijay tries to prove to those around him that he is, in fact, the real Vijay. Pyaasa is considered one of the genre’s best films.
Koi…Mil Gaya (2003)
This is the Bollywood version of E.T., and that’s all you need to know.